Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Starting a religion? Hire a martyr!

Let's take a break from the normal voodoo and get religious. According to a new study, the success of a religion is influenced by martyrs. Want to be a success? Somebody has to take one for the team!

An article in New Scientist summarizes a study that has made the sacrificial link between successful religion and its martyrs. Scientist Joseph Henrich, an evolutionary anthropologist at the University of British Columbia (Canada, eh?) found that the bigger the danger and the higher the risk that a believer takes, the bigger the payoff for the religion.  

Take the simple one, running into the enemy's sword at full speed with death the only option (crusades). That would be a martyr.  Dying of torture or the death penalty for not converting your religion (inquisition), that too is a martyr. A high risk, low probability, but under the flag of the religion, yep that's a martyr. Even giving all your money to your church is being a martyr. Even dedicating your life to be a priest or nun rather than a Joe Public worshiper can be considered a martyr for the cause.

We are talking about death by choice, poverty by choice, miracles (often preceded by death by choice) and generally falling on your sword. If coming out the other side alive requires either blind luck or a miracle, the supplicant is more committed to his or her mission and thus seen as a poster child for getting on board and believing that fellow's religion. 

The true measure is sincerity. If you are willing to risk death and dismemberment to save a small child from a rabbit rabbit, no big deal. If the rabbit is ten feet tall, spewing carrot and brimstone fire, and generally evil (i.e. red glowing eyes) and certain death to challenge, well that's sincerity! 

Of course it helps to credit your beliefs, guardian angels, and god(s) involved. Simple bravery is a bit pointless. Gotta have mysticism linked to the religion to ring the marter bell. It's in the rule book.

You could look at it this way; It could be the level of bravery and a poor grasp of statistics with maybe a need to prove something, plus that mystic link. Not knocking Jesus, but anyone else that wants to start a religion or get canonized as a saint, they just need some nails. I think it helps to yell something about remembering the Alamo too.

I don't know why, but there is a lot of comparison in the article between Jesus and Superman. Nobody worships Superman. Poor Superman. I think he needs to make more sacrifices to be the martyr. Say becoming human or braving kryptonite to save the girl. Maybe forgo rewards or super hero salary and work for a living as a reporter as a sacrifice to truth and justice. Seems like sacrifice? Not the stuff of religion. Superman is just brave. He does not do this for his god. Sorry kids, Superman is an atheist. 

Is it a mortal sin to bring a Superman comic to Sunday school?

The article has some other good points to consider. Some of these can certainly apply to pseudoscience. 

Sacrifice begets sacrifice. Maybe because people believe the luck of the first guy, it must be safe if you believe hard enough. Given that we would look like a woos, we have to believe that we believe and then prove it through similar acts. Lemmings....  We see that with stupid people tricks, but it goes for religion too. One guy thinks, wow if I do that I'll get a lot of uTube hits. Second guy sees the hits and figures, why not give it a go, that guy survived, right? 

It's like lemmings (or at least the Disney version wherein a bulldozer provided the motivation). If one jumps off the cliff, the others follow. If one guy gives all his money to the cult, others will see the sincerity and do the same. Not bad if you are a cult leader. Get one rube to give away his money to your cult's bank account and then get followers to do the same. No need to drink the cool-aid when you have willing followers that are thirsty. 

The guy in charge also does not need to make the sacrifices. That's right, the cult leader does not need to be the martyr! All you need are the lemmings. Making lemming-aid from lemmings, sort to speak. Just seed one sacrifice by one rube or even a story about a rube and that is enough. It is that one guy that will be an example. Following your instructions to sacrifice only needs to be done by one volunteer, the rest will follow. Why should you sacrifice when it is all about the believers anyway?

Sacrifice of the martyr doesn't even need to be real. Just tell a damn good story about sacrifice. If the story is believable, it must be real. Given the fact we are pre-wired to believe in miracles, it isn't hard to for a good yarn that yields result. 

There is a lot of history for success in religion and martyrs. It is said that the reason Christianity got so popular in the first and second centuries is because the Romans hatted the Christians. Simply they treated them like dirt. They put them into the Coliseum and had them fight lions. These Christians would go to their deaths willingly and with a prayer. These early Christian martyrs had such conviction in their resurrection, that people believed their beliefs. Because they believed so convincingly and with such low odds and little evidence, they were great martyrs. Some, against the odds would survive and credit God. Perhaps proof or perhaps the others that failed did not pray enough, but in ether case, damn good public relations. Combined we get a lot of martyrs. 

Not knocking your religion. Hey, could be true, but you can see by the psychology that martyrs and belief go hand in hand. 

The idea that being a martyr is good is also a key idea. Sacrifice, like I said, begets sacrifice.  Martyrisim is encouraged and promoted as a ticket to heaven in many religions (you know who you are).  I once met a guy that was willing to be burned alive rather that denounce his beliefs. Even if he could tell a white lie and have the chance to convert thousands of others to his religion in secret and have a dozen babies to teach his religion. Martyrism trumps all in his mind. It is the ultimate sacrifice for belief.

We see a bit of this today. Timothy McVeigh and David Koresh. They were both martyrs feeding the beliefs of ATF/FBI/establishment haters. Their acts, if not leading to copycats, lead to deeper belief in their causes. But that's sort of ugly. You can do the same for acupuncture or crystals if the sacrifice is great enough. 

How do you think I should end this blog? What would make you believe in what I have just written? How can I convince you that martyrs are what make people believe in such crazy ideas? Throw yourself on this blog and save the lives around you! Campus Crusade for Martyrs? Sacrifice a lamb, or at least wear a wool sweater in the name of this blog. Of course I am always willing for you to donate all your worldly possessions in my name - or just make our the check to 'cash'.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Tomato Tomata Placebo Nocebo

The world of pseudoscience will never be the same. We had the placebo, but now we have the nocebo. Basically we can think ourselves sick, poor, crazy, or even stupid.

We have always had the ability to say quackery is still viable by calling on placebos. You may not be able to prove why crystals or health magnets work, but you can at least say the placebo effect makes people better. The new age pseudoscientists depend on the magic of the mind to transform a hunk of dirt into miracles.

The news today at the New Scientist is that the opposite affect of placebos has been found. But here is the real punch line, they found it with voodoo.

We are talking about hexes, voodoo dolls, and all sorts of curses. If you believe it will kill you, it is a pretty good chance that your brain will pull a reverse placebo and make you sick enough to die. So, no science that a pin through the Raggedy Ann version of your heart can kill you, but the nocebo effect will kill you just the same.

Things get better. Doctors have been mistakenly prescribing nocebos for hundreds of years without knowing it.

A doctor says you have cancer and three years to live. Odds are, you will die in just about three years. You may not die of cancer, but from the nocebo diagnosis from your doctor. There is in fact documented proof of just such a case. Dr Clifton Meador writes about it in this paper. He also has a book called Symptoms of Unknown Origin: A Medical Odyssey
that addresses voodoo and the beginnings of his theories.

I love to read any book by a real doctor that mentions hexes and voodoo curses. Don't you?

But what does this mean for the professional pseudoscientist? We have science not only for placebos, but for the reality of belief-based imaginary illness. It's true, we can think ourselves into sickness and even death.

A side affect of the nocebo (pun intended) is that hypochondria is real! You do have your imaginary disease, as long as you imagine hard enough. I'd avoid any medical publications just to be safe. You might want to give up watching House or any medical shows from now on because imagination leads to some very bad medical conditions.

For the pseudoscience entrepreneur.... Oh glory be! We have mana from whatever heaven is foretold by your personal religion or agnostic fantasies. Science is on your pseudoscience side and backing up your hokum and quackery. Not only can you sell your nocebo Voodoo Dolls and Voodoo Divorce Hex Books, you can sell the placebo oriented anti-voodoo too.

I'll add one more bit of entrepenureal genius. In exchange for this advice, if you start a company, you need to send me a sizable cut of the profits if you follow this advice. Really, you should send me money. I have a voodoo doll with your name on it. If you don't, well... Like I said, this nocebo stuff really works. Do you really want to take that risk? Either send money or I have a pin with your name on it.

Here is the advise that will make you, and me by definition, rich: You can also sell your charms against the bad diagnosis of doctors! 

Remember the three years to live diagnosis? You can sell anti-hex charms to counteract the doctor's diagnosis predicting the patient's eminent death. The funny thing is that no doctor can be 100% sure of when people will die of a disease. Plus there is a lot of wiggle room. Your anti-doctor charms don't need to exactly work, but they can be an enhancement or insurance against a doctor's own sloppiness.

Wow, I can hear the sound of my happy banker now. Dr tell you that you have three years to live? Why not glue this magnet with a sacred Mayan quartz crystal to your shin bone to break that medical profession curse.

I know you want to read the article and probably tired of my little spoilers. Here is another one. When doctors gave patients placebo drugs that were like the real drugs, patients got side affects just like those of the real thing. Wow, that itchy rash goes away because of the placebo affect, but your liver is failing from the nocebo affect. Nothing comes for free, including imaginary side effects.

Side effects? This is so cool. How can I put this into words... This is cool. Not only can your placebo psuedoscience quackery cure stuff, but it can have nocebo side affects that make your snake oil sing and dance like a poorly researched but expensive Pharmaceutical. 

Why not get rid of the side affects of regular drugs too? Got a queasy stomach from your diabetes medicine? Wear this Hopi charm bag of mouse knuckles and bat's blood around your neck and you'll be right as rain.

There's some downside to this nocebo affect. The law now has a way to convince a jury to convict based on nocebo effect. A curse, hex, and even a less than positive diagnosis by a doctor or placebo side affects can cause damages or mental strife. 

Lawyers can point to a scientific cause and effect relationship. If you shoot someone with a gun, that's murder. If you curse someone to death, and they die by any cause, that's murder too. It is a slippery slope and you know the lawyers want a cut of that action. As

Tomato or tomata, placebo or nocebo, voodoo or hoodoo, it's all pseudoscience. We can now feel confident that real research by real professionals backs up any claim we can imagine, especially when it is related to the mind. Good for the consumer and good for the pseudoscientist. Yes, some bad, but they said that about the atomic bomb and now we have radioactive glow in the dark watch faces, so we can live with the fallout. 

Let me know what you think. That's what the comment section is for. Cursing is ok, but please no curses.